Monthly Archives: November 2015

I Think Christmas Runs on Sugar in Spain

Much to my shock, the holiday season is suddenly upon us once again. And as every parent of a young child knows, Christmas is not just a day in December. It’s a marathon of sugar-fueled, sideswipes of the toy aisle and endless conversations about what might be under the tree. So much for holidaying!

Christmas is front and center in Spain for weeks. Even though the biggest gift-giving day actually arrives the first week of January, that doesn’t stop the retail crowd from marching out the mistletoe and jingle bells well in advance. With no Thanksgiving celebration to get in the way, store aisles are already clogged with all the trimmings.

Sweets are a key feature, although they are a real mixed bag in my opinion. Familiar chocolate names like Lindt and Nestle have lots of options at the ready, but the fixture of the displays are more traditional Spanish treats.

If the level of sugar on display in Spain is a good indicator, it seems fair to assume that Santa is an addict. With the mounds of sweets as far as the eye can see, the jolly, old fat guy has to be as hopped up as a pint-sized Spider-man working his 12th street on Halloween. There are literally piles of the local favorite turrones, which are brick-like bars of candy that must have the dentistry association dancing in the streets. Honestly, I have no idea how to bite into one of these things. I could construct a brick walkway from a spare box of them.

Then there are the endless bins of individually-wrapped sweets in countless flavors. Some are small chocolates that are tempting. Then there are the ones that are similar to a spongy cake with a buttery or fruity taste – a little rich, but okay. Finally,  there are the biscuits. These are the toughest to describe. The best analogy I have is picking up a cup of sand from the Sahara for a little nibble. They are a tad dry and dusty. But judging by how many are in view, the locals like ‘em.

Of course, the holidays also mean the return of some of Catalunya’s most interesting traditions. The famous pooping log full of toys and treats has made its first appearance of the season in the stores here, and Liam has made his annual request to obtain one, although I’m not sure I’m real keen on the tradition. Of course, filling the shelves near the pooping log is the famous squatting fellow also doing his business, known as a caganer.

To demonstrate just how much the caganer is ingrained in the local culture, stores even have picture and sticker books aimed at small kids with the caganer’s unique IMG_0198Christmas story. The tale is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I have to admit it’s pretty funny to think of a child peeling off the sticker of the squatting caganer and deciding where he should be placed in the nativity scene. Just try and blame that on the dog.

The school break for Christmas this year is more than three weeks long. Even though we’ll be getting outta dodge for a good chunk of it, that’s still quite the lengthy break. Keep in mind, the break also means that only two of the four weeks in December are full school weeks, coming on the heels of November where only one of the four weeks had five days of school. It truly is remarkable how many holidays fill the calendar. I guess the holiday season snuck up so fast because I was too busy trying to fill all the other holidays!

RANDOM THOUGHTS: Advent calendars all also a big thing for kids here. It’s a cheap investment to try and entice good behavior for 24 days straight. Liam has agreed to the deal that he gets the chocolate every night that he’s good, but I get the chocolate every night when he falls short. I’m taking bets on who puts on more weight by the time Christmas rolls around. Over/under starts at 12… I have to admit to enjoying a climate where it isn’t necessary to turn on the furnace until Nov. 22. Of course, the flipside is the cost of utilities almost makes it mandatory to wait as long as possible. Those lucky few with big country houses here (especially in the mountains) must have some whopping bills for gas and electric… But even though the weather is mild, it is still funny to see the locals drinking a cold beer on a chilly day while sitting on a metal chair outside – all at 10 in the morning. They are still hardy folks despite the warm climes…

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Don’t Tempt the Hills of Barcelona Without a Plan

I think I know how the people of San Francisco feel. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an overstatement, but, trust me, Barcelona has one hell of a lot more hills than I imagined before moving here.

Think I’m exaggerating? Not hardly. Venturing out here is not only an exercise (forgive the pun) in figuring out the best route to get somewhere, but also in figuring out how many hills may stand in the way of the journey. Smart planning means finding a bus/metro up the hill and saving the walking for the return trip. After a year of facing a hill every morning on the walk to Liam’s school, I can firmly attest to the importance of good transportation planning. And decent shoes. And a treat to distract a six-year-old from the remaining 1000 steps upward.

I recently saw information on a cool new business venture, essentially a whole mini coffee stand on a bicycle. It’s brilliant and I have to admit being tempted, but clearly it’s designed for flatter lands than these. If I had to wheel that thing up some of these hills, the accident report wouldn’t be referring to tires when it listed a blow out.

So despite already having an almost daily hill challenge, Liam and I did volunteer for some extra climbing last weekend to check out a viewpoint that has become a favorite with some locals and the occasional tourist. Of course, the first step was cautious planning, because picking the wrong bus would leave us with a climb that inevitably would end up with someone crying. And Liam probably would be upset, too. Not to mention the fact that starting farther away from the target exponentially increases the likelihood that the GPS directions will aim us closer to Times Square than any Barcelona landmark. A baffled GPS app is par for the course here.

Known as the Bunker of Carmel, the site is a very reasonable climb as long as you pick the right bus stop. Interestingly, the walk up curves through a small residential neighborhood that is pretty much clinging to the side of a hill in precarious fashion. One wrong step off the deck of any of these houses and you wouldn’t stop rolling downhill for a week. The locals must be teetotalers or at least not prone to sleep-walking if they have a good sense of self-preservation. I’d probably tie myself to some furniture if I lived there.

Once we reached the top of the hill, we found a few dozen Spaniards sprawled across the concrete apron and hillside, checking out aDSC_0809 view that is clearly worth a million bucks. The bunker is actually the remnants of an observation point that dates back to the Spanish Civil War, designed to alert the city to air attacks. Fortunately, that’s no longer a worry, but the panorama of the entire city is every bit as noteworthy. The entire main part of Barcelona all the way to the harbor stretches in front of you, with the sprawl north and south going as far as the eye can see to the right and left.

As I sat a little mesmerized at all that lay out below, Liam immediately began concentrating on creating his own mini flip book with a story on spaceships. I stopped to ask him if he liked the view. “Yup,” he replied without even looking up from his work. Impressing a six-year-old is no small feat, but he was quite happy with his newly-created storybook, so that’s a pretty big victory in itself.

We lounged among young couples, families and phone-obsessed teenagers for about an hour and enjoyed a nice moment high above most of Barcelona. Sometimes a big view makes all the other challenges of life seem that much smaller. And in the Spanish way of thinking, nothing is ever so big that taking it easy for a while doesn’t make the day so much better. Maybe hills aren’t so bad, after all.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: As I have mentioned before, ham is a big deal in Spain. In fact, I’m not sure any other product inspires as much discussion, interaction and (literal) dissection. I stumbled on an interesting article the other day with considerable detail on how to store and care for your ham, including the entire legs that are commonly sold here. The key takeaway of the instructions is that ham needs a consistent temperature, limited light and no proximity to strong smells or odors, so the best place to keep your ham is the living room. I have to admit it sounded a tad novel to have an entire pig leg in the living room, but I guess that’s no stranger than an entire deer or moose head that some people choose to display. Definitely, an interesting conversation piece… I’ll also pass on a link to a funny list given to me the other day, detailing 58 things that drive a Canadian crazy. I can attest to many of these… And, lastly, I’ll give kudos to John Oliver for his rant on those behind the sad events in Paris. We need his humor, and his encouragement, and his honesty in the face of such ugliness. It’s easy to be angry and join the throng demanding that we blast them all off the face of the Earth, but isn’t invading and bombing them how this whole mess was inspired in the first place? Even though it is an unfortunate reality that there are times when war is inevitable, it’s tough to support making it the first recourse. That strategy hasn’t been paying off this whole century. Just my two cents…

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Barcelona is a Great City, and that’s not the Red Bull Talking

I never cease to be amazed at how livable Barcelona is for a major city. I give a lot of credit to city leaders for making Barcelona a great city, since it’s a real balancing act having a lot of people in a limited space and still maintaining working order and enjoyment of all the things that motivate people to come to a city in the first place.

Despite it’s population, Barcelona rarely feels overly crowded. Go down to the main tourist district on a nice day and there are crowds, but much of the rest of the city is fine to move around. The great transit system undoubtedly plays a big part in this. Simply put, most places are pretty simple to get to via metro or bus. And the fact that most buildings have underground garages means there’s not a logjam of cars everywhere. You’re a lot more likely to see a viral video of two people going postal over a parking place in London or Los Angeles than Barcelona.

Spain may have a laissez faire reputation, but clearly the city leaders here put a lot of time and effort into managing how the city operates. One of their big focuses is boosting sports and culture. It’s no exaggeration to say there is always something going on in Barcelona, from neighborhood festivals to music events to parties with virtually every theme imaginable. Nearly all these events are backed by the city and they all share one goal: get a bunch of people together in a friendly setting and let them enjoy life.

Last weekend, Liam and I ventured out to an oddball attraction known as Autos Locos, created by the colorful folks at Red Bull. In reality, it’s simply a modernized soap box derby with TV cameras, a honking big sound system and a lot of edgy people, thanks to the fact that Red Bull is the only fluid being sold on a warm day. There’s definitely some irony in the fact that people can no longer queue up for the iconic Spanish sport of bull-fighting (now banned in these parts), but instead line up for an adrenaline shot of Red Bull instead. Looking at the ingredient list on the side of the can, bull-fighting probably did less damage to fewer people.

The event was three hours of hijinks on an elevated stage near the top of Barcelona’s famous Montjuic as costumed teams pushed out their busoddball cars and then let ‘em roll down the hill. Many of the competitors work on these cars for months and the creativity came through in the form of a rolling hospital bed, a miniaturized tourist bus, giant ducks, a bumble bee, a shark and even a dude sitting on the crapper (otherwise known as a caganer in Catalan). I think the team who built this last one may have some issues, but that’s a much longer story.

Liam’s personal favorite was the team of four minions, who performed a rather unchoreographed dance at the start line before pushing their giant banana car off the line. I’ll chalk them up as memorable since 100 yards down the track the wheels literally fell off, leaving a disgraced minion sitting in a stationary banana. They get my vote for making the highlight reel.

As events go, it’s not exactly the excitement level of the Super Bowl, but it does say a lot about how the Spanish enjoy life. Thousands came out not for the silly cars, but simply to take a seat on a hillside, have something to eat or drink, mingle and enjoy a nice day. The event was a huge hit while the majority of attendees barely noticed the silly cars, and further proof that no one is as good at enjoying life as the Spanish. City leaders are clearly backing a winner, and adding more fuel to the claim that Barcelona is a great city.

RANDOM THOUGHTS: I hope I wasn’t the only one to get a good laugh at of the story explaining how Norwegians have adopted the word Texas into their language to mean crazy… According to reports, there was an earthquake about 100 miles north of Barcelona last week, measuring about 3.8. Can’t say I noticed, but some others claim to have felt it. I’ve been through one in Maryland and have little desire to experience another… I was chasing some extra freelance work lately on a website built for that purpose. It’s actually a rather grim glimpse into humanity. There’s an unending stream of people who want someone to write their “unbelievable” life story, but also lots of even odder requests. There’s the mother who wants someone to write her daughter’s college entrance essays, the secret lover who wants a eulogy for a coming out at a funeral that promises to be memorable and the soon-to-be felon who wants a letter for the judge expressing that he really is more responsible than the DUI charge suggests. You can’t make this stuff up. Truth is far stranger than fiction…

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